Nonstop Laughs

At 75, Larry Gelbart could rest easy. Instead he's still churning out screenplays and lots of yuks

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Family time gives Gelbart a respite from his writing and busy schedule in L.A., where, as on Wall Street, past performance does not guarantee future success. Gelbart still has his share of disappointments. Just last year his series The Corsairs, about ruthless media moguls, was not picked up by ABC. "Truthfully, mathematically, I've had more disappointments than--what's the opposite of disappointments?--appointments? in these last few years than I've ever known before," admits Gelbart. "I find myself going to a lot of meetings with people who take a tour around me like I'm Norma Desmond's house, and they make deals with me because they like what I did. Then I do what I did and they say, 'We hoped you would do something different.'"

Asked if M*A*S*H would fly today, Gelbart shoots back, "You don't need it. You've got CNN. Any artifice would look as though we were trivializing it. So if this isn't the war to end all wars, maybe it's the war to end all shows about war."

But the setbacks haven't soured Gelbart enough to slow down his frenzied work pace. In September HBO will air And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, with Antonio Banderas as Villa. Gelbart wrote the fact-based screenplay that sounds more like fiction. It's the tale of the Mexican revolutionary general who in 1914 twice sold rights to the Mutual Film Corp. to film his battles. Gelbart's screenplay effectively tapped the humor inherent in that situation, observes Keri Putnam, senior vice president of production and development at HBO Films. "Larry is the rare writer particularly suited to write smart, funny material with a political context. There's a depth to his work as well as an entertainment value. It's a wonderful combination."

According to Gelbart, the Mutual Film Corp. not only suggested when Villa should and should not fight but also insisted he get some modern, better-looking artillery and supplied him with uniforms. "They were forgetting that people were getting killed," says Gelbart. "They were forgetting why they were there."

Gelbart is good at reminding us of things like that--especially with productions like his 1989 political satire Mastergate, which spoofed the Iran-contra hearings with lines like "What did the President know, and does he have any idea that he knew it?"

For Gelbart, however, writing isn't just a way to be clever. It can also be a therapeutic release for the frustration he has felt in Hollywood. He began writing City of Angels while he was in the throes of working on Tootsie--a project during which he was angered by "the constant meddling" with his script. He spun his ire into a tale of an abused screenwriter named Stine (Gelbart's alter ego). Poor Stine is plagued by a producer who boasts that he could trim 10 seconds from the Minute Waltz; he's also rewritten by nearly everybody else who crosses the stage.

And therein lies one of the keys to Gelbart's longevity in the business. Better to transfer the rage to his keyboard than to his duodenum, he observes. Still restive and passionate about the art he produces, he has no plans to walk away from his computer any time soon. "I'd only retire if I could be assured there is show business after death," says Gelbart. "Then I simply would think of retiring as a hiatus."

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